This is adapted from the introduction to "America the Great Cookbook: The Food We Make for the People We Love From 100 of Our Finest Chefs and Food Heroes," edited by Washington Post Food and Dining Editor Joe Yonan (Weldon Owen, 2017).
When I was a kid growing up in West Texas in the 1970s, I loved Saturday mornings. Partly because I didn't have to go to school, of course, but also because of the cartoons — and because of "Schoolhouse Rock!," that series of animated songs that ran between shows. Millions of us learned about legislative procedures through "I'm Just a Bill," math through "Three Is a Magic Number" and grammar through "Conjunction Junction."
Then there was the episode called "The Great American Melting Pot." The chorus went:
Lovely Lady Liberty
With her book of recipes
And the finest one she's got
Is the Great American Melting Pot.
It was catchy enough, and the animation was striking: The statue flipped through her book and came to the titular recipe (right under one for Irish stew), and the ingredients read, "Armenians, Africans, English, Dutch . . ." Cue scenes of people of various ethnicities diving into the water in a giant pot (with a handle), apparently on a stove. One of the verses declared:
You simply melt right in
It doesn't matter what your skin
It doesn't matter where you're from
Or your religion, you jump right in
To the Great American Melting Pot.
I found it puzzling, maybe even a little disturbing. As the grandson of Assyrian immigrants, I wondered: Is that what really happens? We melt right in? Isn't that painful? I'm sure I wasn't sophisticated enough to be thinking about the true impact on my grandparents' culture, but I remember wondering about the previous lives of all those people simmering in that pot. Decades later, I thought: What about the Native Americans who were already here? Did they melt right in, too? Did they want to?
The original melting-pot metaphor for homogeneity was actually a crucible, or a smelting pot, not a cooking pot. I'm not sure whether that episode of "Schoolhouse Rock!" was the first time the metaphor was translated into a culinary context, but it seemed to stick, because I remember my social studies teacher discussing the song with us many years later when I was in high school. He said that a more accurate metaphor would be that of a salad bowl, with the distinct elements intact. Or perhaps a bouillabaisse. I immediately liked those ideas better (although I'm sure I had no idea what bouillabaisse was).
What does all this have to do with American food and American cooks? Well, when we ask the question, "What is American food?" we might as well be asking, "What is America?" Because the answer is every bit as complex — much more complex than a melting pot, a salad or a fish soup.
American food is native food, and it is immigrant food. It is food cooked in the spirit of openness, experimentation and reinvention, but often with a deep attachment to tradition. It is a stew concocted in Santa Fe from the crops known as Three Sisters — corn, squash and beans — that are so important to Native American food culture. It is the fried rings of poblano chiles made by a TV personality who grew up on both sides of the San Diego/Tijuana border. It is a hamburger and milkshake served from a quintessential 1950s-era drive-in found in the heart of the Midwest; and it is a burnished loaf of challah, perfectly braided in Washington by one of the world's foremost experts in Jewish cuisine. It is a bowl of creamed rice made by an ambassador of new-Southern cooking in Atlanta; it is the chicken hot dish , topped with Tater Tots, made by an East Coast transplant now living and writing on her husband's family farm in North Dakota. And it is the gumbo that a true icon of Creole cooking has been dishing out for decades in New Orleans.
Those examples are among the flavors and personalities — some of them famous — that we feature in "America the Great Cookbook." Their recipes are wonderful, but the book is not just about how many cups of flour go into a cake. I think we captured the essence of what it means to be American through the eyes and hands and mouths and words of some of our favorite chefs, producers and home cooks. The portraits of these people and their places are also a portrait of our collective place, as disjointed as it might sometimes seem. Out of many, one.
The book is more than a celebration, though. It's also a call to arms against one of the most pressing issues of our time: poverty and a lack of access to good food, particularly among the most vulnerable of our community, our children. I am proud to promote this collection as a way to benefit No Kid Hungry and its tireless work toward eradicating child hunger. No child should have to face a single day uncertain about when, and from where, his or her next meal will come. Our children are America's future, and we will not neglect them.
Back to that bowl of bouillabaisse — or should it be a gumbo, like chef Leah Chase's famous version in New Orleans? Now that I think of it, gumbo just might be my favorite metaphor for this project, and indeed for the influence of so many rich cultures upon American cuisine. Because as complex and as wonderful as a bowl of gumbo is, here's the thing: There are as many gumbos as there are cooks. As critic Brett Anderson once wrote in the New Orleans newspaper the Times-Picayune, "There is no one gumbo history. There are countless histories."
And so it is with this ever-evolving thing called American food: We're not a melting pot, and neither is our cuisine. We're not a salad. We're not a burger. And we're not a stew — not even, really, a gumbo. We are many, many gumbos, each one more delicious, more storied and more satisfying than the last.
MAKE AHEAD: This casserole could be assembled, cooled and wrapped for the freezer; freeze for up to 3 months. Defrost in the refrigerator overnight.
Adapted from a Molly Yeh recipe in "America the Great Cookbook: The Food We Make for the People We Love From 100 of Our Finest Chefs and Food Heroes," edited by Joe Yonan (Weldon Owen, 2017).
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 large yellow onion, chopped
3 carrots (trimmed), scrubbed well and cut into ½ -inch pieces
6 tablespoons flour
3 cups whole milk
About 1 tablespoon concentrated chicken bouillon, such as Better Than Bouillon brand
¾ cup fresh or frozen peas
1½ pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cut into ½ - to ¾ -inch pieces
½ teaspoon dried thyme
Freshly ground black pepper
18 ounces frozen Tater Tots
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
Melt the butter in a large saute pan or deep skillet over medium heat. Once its foam subsides, stir in the onion, carrots and a pinch of the salt. Cook for about 10 minutes, stirring a few times, until they have softened.
Sprinkle in the flour and stir to incorporate, then gradually pour in the milk while you are stirring, forming a sauce that is thickening. Then add the chicken bouillon base, peas, chicken pieces, dried thyme and a few grinds of pepper, stirring to blend well. Once the mixture begins to bubble at the edges, cook for 10 to 15 minutes. Taste and add salt and/or pepper, as needed.
Transfer this filling mixture to an 8-by-11-inch baking dish or casserole with a 3-quart capacity. Use the Tater Tots to cover the surface of the hotdish, arranging them snugly and neatly. Bake (middle rack) for about 30 minutes, or until golden brown.
Let cool slightly before serving.
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